Ebooks and the Digital Devolution

by Sarah on September 13, 2009 · 24 comments


So…I may have mentioned my woes with digital reading a time or two before. Here’s a brief list of my problems with ebooks in general, and a few issues which are relevant to Sony Readers in Switzerland.

My Principal Problems with Ebooks:

Digital Rights Management (DRM) - I resent the efforts of the publishing industry to convince me that I’m not buying a book, I’m buying the right to read content for an unspecified amount of time. They’re trying to redefine a product they’ve been selling for centuries – to their own advantage. Suddenly, readers are being told they do not have a right to own a book, to swap it with friends, to sell it to a used bookstore, to keep it and pass it down the generations. As a consumer, I don’t want to be inconvenienced by choosing digital over print. I should be able to read a book for as long as I wish and transfer it onto any number of devices. Given that I cannot sell or swap the book, I should pay a lot less than for an ebook in order to compensate me for the freedoms I lose by choosing digital over print.

Price – The price of digital reading devices and ebooks is a definite deterrent. The current price for a Sony Reader PRS-505 in Switzerland is 379 CHF. It used to be 449 CHF but they were forced to slash the price due to poor sales. The average cost of an ebook is 15 CHF. In their wisdom, Sony made the devices available in Switzerland language-specific, so I wouldn’t even be able to read English books on it. I currently pay the equivalent of 7 CHF for a mass market paperback at Amazon Germany. Go figure. My annual book-buying budget is around 800 CHF. A Sony Reader would eat up almost half that amount. And then there’s the inflated price of the ebooks themselves. As I can neither swap nor sell my ebooks, I can’t even recoup some of the money spent on the Reader. Given that technology evolves quickly, and modern devices are not made to last more than a couple of years, I’d be obliged to upgrade to a new model within a couple of years. And so the whole process would begin again.

Geographical Restrictions - Let’s say I import a Sony Reader from an English speaking country. Once I’ve dealt with import tax and the fact that I have no come-back should the device prove to be faulty, I can’t even buy all the books I’d want to read on it anyway. For their own reasons, many publishers have imposed geographical restrictions on ebooks which makes it difficult for a non-US resident to buy them. Print versions of the same books are easy to come by via Amazon, The Book Depository, and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

The Sony Reader – Sony are fuckwits. Let’s just get that out there. There’s a reason their launch of the Sony Reader PRS- 505 has not been a roaring success in Germany and Switzerland. It’s over-priced, language-specific, and there are a limited number of ebooks available in German and French. I have no idea how it’s done in Germany, but in Switzerland, the Reader is sold exclusively through bookstores. As my husband so rightly pointed out, why would I go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore to buy an ebook, or a device on which to read them? The salespeople have no clue about the technology behind the device. After reading up on them online, I knew more about the Sony Reader than the people in the bookstores in our town. One bookseller I spoke to had no idea what epub format is. I kid you not. And this person is supposed to inform customers about the product. A definite head-desk moment.  The new touch screen version is also due to launch here soon. But guess what? In the place of a display model for customers to try out, there’s a cardboard box. Way to go, Sony.

Dodgy Digital Publishers – Sorry if this offends, but seriously, I’ve heard more negative stories about epublishers than positive. This might not be fair and I’m sure there are legitimate ones out there. But every time scandal hits an epublisher – be it ripping off authors, or failing to open after bombarding the internet with advance PR crap and non-answers about royalties – my scepticism raises yet another notch.

To conclude: I would love to go digital. Truly. I’d save so much space. Under the current conditions, however, I’m at a loss to see why I should – or why anyone would want to.

What say you?

Some Recent Blog Posts on Ebooks, Quartet Press sinking before it swam, and Digital Publishing in General:
Jane at Dear Author - Long Live the Content


Edie September 13, 2009 at 18:32

:O A Sarah rant! :O

Sarah September 13, 2009 at 18:33

@Edie Ah, but does it contain enough snark for you? :D

Edie September 13, 2009 at 18:35

I think it does! ;) Will have to come back with my pro-digital thoughts later, after I have had some sleep.

Sarah September 13, 2009 at 18:36

@Edie I look forward to them!

M September 13, 2009 at 18:46

I’m not in the US as well, so I face similar restrictions when I want to buy books.

But I’ve been reading ebooks for several years, on my laptop more often than not.

Having said that, I think I gain more utility from reading ebooks than most do, as it is simply impossible to move every year with print books.

I think if you don’t insist on getting a dedicated device (which I’m frankly against because if I’m really going to get one, I’m going to wait until the market’s established), then you are better off.

You have a choice of formats, which makes the DRM issue somewhat less onerous — on that note, I currently prefer eReader vs Mobipocket.

As for geographic restrictions, well, the Kindle is only available Stateside, and the Sony reader…well, you’ve just listed its flaws on that regard — I haven’t tried talking to the Sony people in Singapore, though I’ve seen the display sets.

Dodgy digital publishers…I generally assume that the newbies on the block are dodgy, and I’ve seen very few that have proved otherwise.

Maili September 13, 2009 at 18:47

Not all publishers produce DRM-locked books and not all of them impose geographical restrictions. Such as native ebook publishers and a selection of mainstream publishers. There are enough ebooks that interest me to go digital.

Geographical Restrictions –
It had to be said: that’s your country’s problem, not the origin country of a book. For example, if Author B has a book out, a publisher from your country ideally will buy a right to publish Author B’s book in your country. The said publisher can – if there’s an agreement within that right – publish the digital version of Author B’s book, which you can purchase. If the publisher won’t, then you can’t. There’s a lot of unfairness involved, but that’s how it is.

Dodgy Digital Publishers –
“seriously, I’ve heard more negative stories about epublishers than positive”
There are similar horror stories in mainstream publishing, but we don’t get to hear about it much. Now and then, over years, an author will spill the beans about, for instance, delayed royalties.
Examples (off my head) over years: Brava, Leisure, Lovespell, Tor, Harlequin/M&B (for a long time during 1980s(?), they didn’t bother to register copyrights of their category romances), Loveline, and I think, Signet.
There were some print publishers launched with fanfare that folded up quickly. Loveline (a publisher targeted to become a category romance publisher like Harlequin/M&B) is one example. It folded after I think ten books within six months or so.
It’s really not that unusual. Publishing is a gambling game. We don’t notice that much with mainstream publishing because whenever they’re in danger of folding up, they either become imprints or merged with another imprint. Digital publishers aren’t that different in this respect. Samhain acquired a folded ebook publisher, for instance.

But hey, what do I know? :P

M September 13, 2009 at 19:12

Maili makes a point that I missed: there are enough books that are available in e-format to me that I can deal and then buy the rest in print if I really want it that badly.

Diana September 13, 2009 at 19:29

//@ Maili: It had to be said: that’s your country’s problem //

True, but ebooks will NEVER become a viable global product, forever replacing books, if affordable e-readers and ebook content is restricted to the US and UK only. Surely that’s obvious…?

katiebabs September 13, 2009 at 19:36

I don’t mind reading ebooks but I love to have an actual book in my hands. Look at music for example. Some love their Ipods and Itunes, others still like to have a CD and play it from their CD Walkman.

Digital will never replaced print but I feel it has a very important place.

Maili September 13, 2009 at 19:54

I have to say I still don’t have a full understanding of how it works, but this is what I understand:

Print books were never truly a global product, either. International online book shops and the global postal system give an illusion that it is, but technically, what we have been doing for years is somewhat illegal. It’s a grey market, in other words.

If you were in Malaysia and you buy a book off – say – the Book Depository, you’re effectively trading in the grey market. In theory, you were supposed to buy whatever is physically available, sold by your local publisher or a localised online bookshop that operates under local laws, in Malaysia.

The grey market stands between the legitimate market and the black market of some sort (e.g. e-piracy). It’s somewhat acceptable because copyright holders still receive payments for books sold in the grey market. As I understand (I may be wrong), copies sold in the grey market aren’t counted in some statistics.

Ebooks don’t have that luxury (publishers’ willingness to turn a blind eye), but it’s still evolving, so perhaps some day it will. Until then, publishers are being overcautious, not wanting to upset other publishers in case their willingness to avail ebooks to the international base of readers would illegally interfere with these publishers’ attempts to sell ebooks in their own countries.

This issue didn’t occur to me until a debate I had with an employee of Canongate publisher a couple of months ago.

Sarah September 13, 2009 at 20:12

@M I read the odd Harlequin title on the PC but in general I dislike reading on the computer. I also tried reading on my iPod touch but found it gave me motion sickness. For me to become a true digital reader, I’d need to have a proper handheld device such as the Sony Reader or Kindle.

@Diana The more I read, the more I suspect publishers don’t want to reach a global audience. I’m convinced they underestimate its potential.

@katiebabs I was much quicker to embrace digital music. It might have something to do with the fact that I’ve never had a problem buying the music I want to listen to on iTunes!

@Maili I’ve heard about Amazon before. However, the fact remains that they’ve been doing it for years, as have regular bookstores outside the US and the UK. Whatever the legal reasoning behind it, books are being sold and authors are receiving money for those books. Pull the plug on that availability, and I’ll bet the piracy publishers worry so much about will become a much more serious problem than it is now.

One thing I don’t understand is how music is available in so many countries but books are not. Does anyone know why that is? I’m assuming the music industry manages its copyright differently. I’d love to know why that couldn’t apply to books as well.

Maili September 13, 2009 at 20:51

“I’ve heard about Amazon before.”

Actually, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon when I wrote those responses. But since you mentioned Amazon –

When Amazon branched out by opening its international branches online, I couldn’t buy certain US books because of the very same reason that ebooks are experiencing now.

I remember trying to buy Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s book (one of American football books) through Amazon UK and it wasn’t available for sale. So I nipped over to Amazon US to buy it, and it wouldn’t let me because I had a UK address (this wasn’t a problem when it was just Amazon).

I bitched at Amazon UK and they provided an explanation their UK book purchaser didn’t buy this particular book for UK because she didn’t think there was a market for it in the UK. Basically, it was all new then, so some were overcautious, putting geo restrictions on PRINT books. They have relaxed since then.

So that’s why I think what the ebook market is going through is just like what the online book shops went through at the beginning over a decade ago. It’s a matter of time before it’s all sorted.

M September 13, 2009 at 20:58


The problem starts with the way how rights are sold.

A title is generally sold to a publisher for a specific territory. That’s typically North America vs the rest of the world (which includes UK, foreign language rights, AUS/NZ).

Now that the publishers have started cracking down on ebooksellers, it means that if you don’t have a US CC or bank account, you can’t buy certain titles.

The reason is that the publishers themselves are drawing the line, because if they don’t, then the publishers who hold rights outside North America lose out. Frankly, they were going to lose out anyway, but nobody’s told them that.

katiebabs September 13, 2009 at 22:11

Sarah: every week I download my free single on Itunes. Hee.

Sarah September 13, 2009 at 23:02

@Maili My first experience of shopping at Amazon was Amazon.de in 2001. I’d just moved to Germany and I started using their English Bookstore to buy books in English. They had a more limited selection back then than they do now, but I could still find almost all the titles I wanted. Since then, they’ve expanded their range enormously. Now I can find pretty much every book they have at Amazon.com.

One thing that’s certain is that digital publishing is the way of the future. As a consumer, I can only hope that it evolves in a way which benefits me, the reader. In its current state, it’s not yet there.

@M Hopefully publishers will change the way they manage digital rights. In its current incarnation, everyone loses out. The publishers and authors lose sales, and potential customers have to look elsewhere for their books. I’d love to know if the illegal downloading of ebooks has increased since the introduction of geographical restrictions this year. Unfortunately, there’s probably no way to accurately measure it.

@katiebabs One huge advantage to iTunes is the possibility to buy individual songs as opposed to whole albums. In the past, I often ended up buying albums just for the couple of songs I particularly liked.

Diana September 14, 2009 at 01:23

@ Maili – Thanks for the clarification. I had always thought that books were a global product, but I can see that sometimes books are much less global than we think (it can be an illusion, like you said).

@ Sarah – You think that a book in every hand would mean massive profit for publishers, but… I guess not?! Sometimes, the financial strategy for many publishers seems like it was cobbled together by a five year old.

heidenkind September 14, 2009 at 03:03

Well, I’m sure you know my opinion on ebooks at this point. For myself, I just don’t think it’s worth it price-wise; not to mention the fact that I actually like having “real” books. Yeah, I would have a lot more space without all my books, but seriously–what would I do with that space? Nothing! I’d just be sad I couldn’t look at my books.

The country restrictions is BS–that’s one of the major advantages I could see in e-books, the ability to download books from all over the world. But I’m guessing for tax reasons you can’t. Dumb.

Edie September 14, 2009 at 05:34

Sleep didn’t help the thought process that much.. (what a surprise!)

The M&Ms :-D did beat me to some of my points

DRM & Geographical Restrictions – Does suck, and publishers need to get a workable system in place for it. FFS 95% of the romance books published do not get printed in Australia so it peeves me off that I still can not access the ebook. Though I operate completely under the grey area that Maili talks about.. made a business out of doing so, pmsl.. And kindle’s idea of us renting the book is just freaking stoopid, but I would never get a kindle anyways.
But the majority of my reading of ebooks is from the smaller pubs at the moment, which bless their cotton socks are completely available.

PRICE – I read on the computer, I freaking live here anyway and I have a comfy chair.. there are some readers available here in Australia, but I am waiting for them to come down in price, but not in any big rush.
My print buying will probably always remain slightly bigger than my ebook buying because of the non-resale thing, but not overly fussed on the price of ebooks themselves, as for me it is an instant gratification thing. I order print books they take weeks to come, which is a PIA when I want to read it now!

SONY – are definitely fuckwits, but there are a lot of other readers out there.

Dodgy Digs – As Maili (I think) said there are a lot of dodgy NY pubs, it is just not as widely discussed, people seem more open to discussing the online ones.
Teddypig has a list of what he views as trusted pubs, he gathers that info as a shopper, and from listening to their authors.. You are missing out on some fine work (ok and some really ordinary) by not checking some of them out, I found some of my current fave authors through the epubs, which have been a major fund drain on me for several years now.. lol
:o that is a bit of a scroller, and I didn’t even get to the greenie factor, the diversity factor, the instant gratification factor.. but I’ll end with I heart my ebooks.

It so wasn’t worth waiting for, but I am a sharing and caring blog reader..

M September 14, 2009 at 10:49

Hate to the wet blanket, but there’s a study that’s recently out that says that ebooks will not be that green, especially if readers continue to proliferate, and worse, people change them at the rate they do their MP3 players, laptops etc.

But your point about reading on the computer, exactly! So much of my reference material for school is on the computer anyway…

Sarah September 14, 2009 at 10:57

@heidenkind I think the geographical restrictions were imposed due to legal tangles. I’d imagine the publishing industry will have to address their current method of assigning foreign rights. At least I hope they address it.

@Edie @M
I would love to read on the computer but it gives me headaches. Maybe if I had an armchair and a laptop it would be more comfortable. As it is, anything longer than a category romance gives me eyestrain and a very numb arse!

Magdalen September 14, 2009 at 19:29

I don’t own a digital reader, despite having a cousin-in-law who works (very hard!) as a software engineer for Adobe on their slice of the digital market. I’m not quite too old to master a new technology, but I am getting there. (I remember my mother who, in her 60s, could run a new, computerized Bernina sewing machine but “couldn’t” figure out how to load a CD in the CD player.) And, yes, I still like paper-ink-and-glue books.

But what I can’t get over, reading all these comments, is how the publishing industry didn’t see the train wreck that is movies & TV content being segregated by region and playing format. Some of that was grandfathered in by differences among the television broadcast formats & technology (something about number of lines per inch or something), but some of it is just too stupid for words. Why didn’t print publishers stop and think about what would make sense in the global economy before they sliced & diced the digital publishing industry to death?

And — given that they didn’t think about us, the consumers, why should I care about them?

Sarah September 14, 2009 at 19:48

@Magdalen The region codes are a pain but most American films – and many TV series – are also available in Region 2 (Europe). I can’t say how well other regions are represented.

One huge difference with DVDs is that I can buy Region 1 DVDs from Amazon.com and have them shipped to Switzerland. It’s fairly easy to strip the code and play them on our machine. In the case of geographically restricted ebooks, I can’t even buy the book in digital form.

I would so love to know if the piracy of ebooks increased once the geographical restrictions were imposed this year. Think of all the non-US residents who had purchased ebooks up to that point and suddenly found it hard to find the titles they wanted to buy.

M September 14, 2009 at 20:13

Sarah :
I would so love to know if the piracy of ebooks increased once the geographical restrictions were imposed this year. Think of all the non-US residents who had purchased ebooks up to that point and suddenly found it hard to find the titles they wanted to buy.

That’s the kind of study I’d flat out love to do. The fact all the pubs started enforcing those restrictions at about the same time means that you can…

*stops and takes a deep breath*

I am such a geek sometimes — I study economics. The two are rarely mutually exclusive.

Sarah September 14, 2009 at 20:29

@M If you ever did conduct such a study, I would love to know the results. It’s logical to assume an upsurge in ebook piracy since the restrictions were introduced.

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